When we think of older adults, we often conjure an image of a retiree with extra time on their hands. We think of an old married couple traveling together, spending time with grandchildren, volunteering, or maybe enjoying hobbies like gardening. Rarely do we think of older parents or grandparents as single adults, spending their free time seeking a romantic partner, dating, or beginning a new sexual relationship. But as people live longer and more older adults are experiencing “gray divorce,” nearly 20 million older adults are finding themselves single and interested in dating.
However, the common image of daters – young adults seeking a partner to start a family and share decades together – does not fit the single older adult, either. Studies have shown most single older women are not interested in (re)marrying and many older men and women would prefer to cohabit or live apart together (LAT) rather than marry. Further, most older men and women already have children, even grandchildren, to whom they frequently provide practical and financial support. In short, single older adults are quite dissimilar from married older adults but also from single young adults.
My recent research explored how relationships with adult children and grandchildren, particularly caregiving responsibilities and expectations, impact single older adults’ partner preferences. I interviewed 50 women and 50 men between the ages of 60-83, all of whom were single and heterosexual, about their experiences with singlehood and dating. We discussed a range of issues, including decisions to date, online dating, and physical intimacy, but one issue surfaced again and again – the impact of carework on dating. Participants connected the care older adults perform, such as living with and caring for an ailing parent, providing practical and financial support for an adult child, and looking after a grandchild, to desirability and opportunities in dating.
Men and women both recognized carework as a potential influence to partnering, but the impact of carework was overwhelmingly gendered. Women with carework responsibilities were seen as not having enough time or attention for a relationship and were frequently penalized on the dating market. Men, in contrast, were perceived by women as better candidates for partnering when they cared for their families.
Consistently, men discussed being cautious or disinterested when a woman cared for her children or grandchildren. Men wanted to date women who would have time for and would prioritize them and the relationship, rather than being secondary to helping an adult child or babysitting a grandchild. For example, men believed residential adult children would prohibit them from being allowed to sleep over and would make a woman less inclined to spend the night at his home. Essentially, men assumed women would be less available for sex if they shared a home with their adult children. Even if a woman would be open to spending the night together, she did not have the opportunity to meet or date the men who made these assumptions.
In contrast, women lauded men who were close to or cared for their families. Women perceived these men to be stable and committed partners and someone who was also family-oriented, all qualities they sought in a partner. Women were looking for a “family man,” someone who valued their family relationships and who would be open to incorporating a partner into his family life. When women came across a man who cared for or was involved in his family, they saw a man who prioritized his family, not a man who would prioritize a woman over his family. Women were only turned off by family-oriented men if those men had very young children, often defined as younger than high-school aged, as older women did not want to be pushed into the position of caring for these children.
Women’s dedication to caring for their family members and men’s disinterest in these women highlights the continued role of family in (re)partnering. Historically, parents played a role in their children’s partnering decisions, but this research shows that families still exert influence on one’s partnering, whether they intend to or not, even for older adults. Past research has shown having young, residential children can make it difficult for single mothers to find partners and (re)marry, but this research expands these findings by showing how providing care for non-residential adult children and grandchildren still impacts one’s dating opportunities.
Men judged a woman as a poor romantic partner due to her carework responsibilities, possibly because men perceive that they have plenty of dating options. In later adulthood, there are anywhere from 1.5 to 4 women for every man of the same age. Women live longer and men tend to date and remarry younger women, and so the gender ratio of single older adults puts disproportional power for partner selection in men’s hands.
Men also seemed to misunderstand women’s sense of responsibility to their families and the joy they received from their family relationships. A few men were incredulous that a woman would put looking after her grandchild ahead of her own happiness, defined by men as being in a romantic relationship. What men did not seem to understand, however, was that women felt great responsibility to their families and derived great pleasure from caring for them. Where men saw women needlessly spending time on adult children and grandchildren, women saw an opportunity to maintain close relationships with their children and be an important part of their family’s lives.
In this way, men’s preference for women without responsibilities means fewer women will meet men’s partnership requirements and women will lose out on romantic relationships. But in another way, men are losing out on the possibility of being with happy, fulfilled, caring women. In the end, assumptions and biases about caregiving women leaves women with rewarding and enriching relationships with their children and grandchildren, and leaves men in an ongoing pursuit of women without family attachments.
Lauren Harris is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her research focuses on the meanings, processes, and transitions associated with developing romantic relationships, currently among older adults. You can learn more about her work here, here, and here, and on twitter @lauren_e_harris.